Floyd Allen’s improbable journey to the SEC
Ole Miss WR Floyd Allen. Photo courtesy of Petre Thomas/Ole Miss Athletics

*Story by SportsTalk Mississippi’s Brian Scott Rippee 

A black 2003 Honda Civic rolled to a stop in a parking lot at Alondra Park just off the campus of El Camino College in Los Angeles County, California. Just over eight miles west of Compton in the South Bay area, Floyd Allen put the car in park and laid down in the back seat.

It was the summer of 2016 and Allen wasn’t at the park to workout or for leisure. This was his home for the night and several nights after. He couldn’t sleep. The anxiety of being caught loitering by the police coupled with where he might end up the next night plagued his thoughts. His mind began to wonder as he began to think of the future.

“The first night was always hard to sleep because you aren’t used to it,” Allen said. “As time went on, I got used to it. My main thought is hearing my name called on draft day. Taking care of my mom and pops. Buying a car that I can fit whoever I want in it. My dreams kept me going.”

This isn’t where Allen’s story began and he was going to make damn sure this wasn’t where it ended. At the time, Allen was playing football at El Camino, a community college located about 15 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles. It was his third school in a year. How he got to this point, and eventually to a scholarship at Ole Miss as a member of the deepest wide receiving corps in college football is an improbable journey littered with misfortune that would take him across the country in pursuit of a dream.

“This isn’t the circumstances I want to be in, but this is going is going to be one hell of a story in the end,” Allen thought.

Allen grew up in North Houston and was a standout wide receiver at Nimitz High School. As his senior year approached, Allen was garnering interest from a number of Division I schools such as Colorado and UTEP among others. Allen lived with his mother Lynell Gobert and his stepdad, Courtney Cassup, came into his life at an early age. They supported Allen tremendously, but things weren’t always easy. Allen lived in a few tough neighborhoods but was a kid with a vibrant personality, an infectious smile and some big dreams.

“It is not something I would want to someone to go through,” Allen said. “I wanted to be the guy from that old neighborhood that made it out.”

While attending an LSU football camp the summer before his senior season, Allen tore his ACL making a cut in a drill. His future hung in the balance. A doctor presented the option of wearing a brace and playing through the injury. He could run well in a straight line, but cutting brought pain. It was also expensive. He consulted with his parents on what to do.

“It was like $1,000 for the brace,” Allen said. “They did all they could to help me get the brace and I played with it. It was expensive. They had to take out a loan and go into their 401K just to allow me to play one more year of high school football.”

Despite being on the field, Allen wasn’t the same player and the interest from college programs faded. The schools don’t offer condolences for a tough break or explain why they’re no longer interested. The phone simply stops ringing. It’s a frustrating silence.

His high school coach convinced coach Manny Mastakis and the staff at Bethany College — an NAIA program in Lindsborg, Kansas — to give Allen a shot. It was a culture shock for a Houston native and he arrived on campus in the town of 3,000 wondering where all the people were and why he could walk down the main road of the town for 15 minutes without seeing a car.

He had friends going off to play bigger schools and he felt like he was falling behind. It was an opportunity and he was going to make the most of it. Still dealing with the lingering effects of the injury, Allen caught six balls for 136 yards and a touchdown in six games.

“It didn’t take me long to figure out he was a very good player,” Mastakis said. Allen’s raw athleticism still beamed through the sluggish recovery of a torn ACL.

Mastakis even tried him at quarterback in certain packages.

“He had Andre Ware-like understanding of defenses,” Mastakis said. “It usually takes me a couple of years to get a quarterback to do some of that stuff and he did it naturally.”

The season ended and Mastakis took a job in Philadelphia. Floyd returned home to Houston after one semester and tried to figure out his next move. He worked at a Chuck E. Cheese’s as he tried to save money and find another opportunity. Nearby Tyler Community College was impressed, but had met its transfer quota. Allen was once again slipping through the cracks.

“I hate having a pessimistic attitude over anything,” Allen said. “Your attitude determines your altitude. I just kept working. If I keep working, something is going to happen. You’re going to get a break.”

Four months after coming home, Allen’s phone rang as he was picking up dinner one night. It was C.J. Martinez — former defensive backs coach at Bethany. He’d gotten a job at Santa Monica Community College in California and put Allen head coach Gifford Lindheim’s radar. Allen’s next opportunity had arrived.

With spring football already underway, Allen’s goal was to get there by the summer. He began to pick up extra shifts at Chuck E. Cheese to save as much money as he could. He worked through the logistics of making the trek out west with his parents who chipped in too.

Here’s the thing about junior college football in California: An offer is nothing more than a roster spot. There are no scholarships and out-of-state students pay nearly three times the tuition as in-state students, along with the astronomical living costs.

“The whole California college system — junior colleges and even up to the state schools — are severely underfunded,” Mastakis said. “It limits what they can do. It is a financial train wreck out there bringing in out-of-state kids in terms of the funding.”

In many ways, it’s a gamble and Allen bet on himself. He boarded a flight and began the portion of his journey that saw things get dire. Another roadblock came soon after. Allen’s credits at Bethany didn’t transfer over and he was ruled ineligible for the 2015 season.

Here he sat nearly 1,600 miles from home, unable to play and trying to make ends meet. Allen lived in a two bedroom apartment with four other teammates and no air conditioning. Most of the time five or six people slept there as they all pooled together money to pay $3,200 in monthly rent. You slept where you fit in, sometimes on an air mattress or a couch or the floor.

Allen got a job at a McDonald’s. He took as many morning classes as he could, went to work for five or six hours, made the 1.7-mile walk down Pico Boulevard to the practice facility and then walked back to his crowded apartment at the end of the day. This became a routine.

“There were days where you are like ‘Can I keep doing this? Is this something I can continue to do without having anything positive to show for it?’” Allen said. “I couldn’t let myself get low. The moment you let the circumstances knock you all the way down, that is when you quit.”

The 2015 season ended and Allen once again saw a coaching staff leave for greener pastures. Lindheim accepted a job at El Camino, about a 30-minute drive south of Santa Monica. Allen once again went where the opportunity was. This was his third school in less than three years, and for what purpose? Chasing a pipe dream? He’ll tell you there was no other option. Going back home meant falling back to the same thing he’d been so set on escaping.

“I can’t go back home to Houston,” he said. “There is nothing there in Houston for me. People I was around that go back home are sitting on the couch doing nothing. I refuse to be a part of that.”

Allen depleted the last bit of money he had saved up by buying a car to make the trip down to El Camino, the black Honda Civic that later became both his means for transportation and his bed. When he got there he didn’t have the money to put a down payment on an apartment. He got a job and began to save for rent and to pay the admission fee for local recruiting camps.

In junior college ball, film is everything. Allen needed to be seen and so far only had six games at the NAIA level on tape. In the meantime, he had nowhere to go when the day ended. Some nights he’d ask to sleep at a teammate’s house.

Ultimately, when he had nowhere else to go, he ended up in this parking lot of Alondra Park in the back of his car. A couple thousand miles away from home chasing a better future, here he was — unable to sleep and imagining better days ahead.

“You never tell yourself you are going to go to California to be homeless,” Allen said. “It is hard to find the words to explain it, but it wasn’t fun.”

The worst part about Allen’s struggle is that no one knew what he was going through. His parents were already doing what they could to help and he was scared he’d have to go home if he told them he was sleeping in his car. The coaching staff didn’t know either.

“I didn’t want to put more of a burden on them,” Allen said. “I knew all of this would subside once I found a spot. They just hate that it happened and I didn’t tell him.”

They just saw a kid with a smile on his face every day at practice trying to make good on an opportunity.

Allen bounced around without a home for about three weeks until he accumulated enough savings to get into an apartment. Things were looking up, though. He was standing out at camps, both for his attire and his ability. Jacob Peeler remembers when he first saw Floyd Allen. Peeler was the wide receivers coach at Cal at the time and the Bears were hosting a camp that Allen attended.

“I just remember he was pretty smart,” Peeler said. “He wore this neon yellow hat that made him stand out. It was unique from everyone else.”

The kid in the bright yellow hat kept making plays, as Peeler put it. Recruiting interest began to ratchet up. Utah State, Cal, Boise State and Oregon State were among the schools interested in Allen.

It’d been nearly three years since high school, but Allen remembered what this feeling was like. He was wanted again and could see the finish line. That all changed when he jumped up to grab a football in a drill during a camp and came down awkwardly on his left ankle. Allen suffered two stress fractures, a bone bruise and damaged tendons. The pain was excruciating.

Allen had to play. He knew the consequences of sitting out and already once endured the frustration of fading interest from recruiters. Allen said he’d take six Advil to numb the pain in practice and sometimes as many as eight for a game. He tried to play through it, but eventually went to a doctor that was mystified that Allen was able to walk into his office, much less play a violent sport. Allen was limited to two games that season and was eventually shut down. It had happened again. The summit was in sight but another bad break derailed his ascent.

“That was one of the low points of my life,” Allen said. “I had schools telling me they might could offer me. I was so close to where I wanted to be and got shot down.”

Another year at El Camino appeared to be in the cards. Another year of astronomical living costs and out-of-state tuition. The lack of film made it nearly impossible for other options to open up. All of the misfortune seemed to be pulling him back towards Houston. Allen’s resolve kept him in orbit. Going home wasn’t an option.

“We recognized his talent immediately,” Lindheim said. “We were just wondering how he slipped through the cracks. If you watched him work and watched him compete, you knew he could play. It just wasn’t on film.”

That offseason, Peeler took a job at Ole Miss as the wide receivers coach. Allen sent Peeler a congratulatory message on Twitter and thought nothing more of it. Peeler remembered the kid in the yellow hat from that one day at Cal’s camp.

“That was basically what I had to go off of was the camp and a link he sent me on YouTube of him performing at another camp,” Peeler said.

A scholarship wasn’t feasible given the lack of film, but Peeler trusted his gut and took a chance. He offered Allen a walk-on spot at Ole Miss. Perhaps in the most improbable turn yet, Allen was going to the SEC. He was set up on a student loan plan.

“That was the silver lining to all the hardships I went through,” Allen said. “Some days, I still cannot believe I am here.”

Allen joined the arguably best receiving corps in college football, but his journey to get to that point is evidence enough that there isn’t much that scares the 5-foot-11, 185-pound wideout from North Houston. Allen played on special teams during the 2017 season. Injuries in the receiving corps during the offseason gave him more reps in spring football. Allen began to turn heads in the spring and into the summer in preparation for the 2018 season.

On August 21, roughly 11 days before the Rebels’ season opener against Texas Tech, head coach Matt Luke called on Allen at the end of practice to participate in an incentivized one-on-one drill against defensive back Montrell Custis. The winner and the loser got rewarded with a prize, but what awaited the winner inside a bag Luke held was surely superior than the t-shirt awarded to the loser. Allen made cut on a slant route and caught the ball. He won the drill and celebrated with a backflip as his teammates mobbed him. Luke handed Allen the bag with a piece of paper inside.

“I thought it was a certificate for free food so I was already excited,” Allen said.

Inside was a letter notifying Allen he was being put on scholarship. He couldn’t read much past the first sentence before once again being mobbed by his teammates. Emotions ran wild. His improbable journey had come full circle. From the knee brace, to the walks down Pico Boulevard from McDonald’s to practice, to the harrowing nights in Alondra Park, Allen had made it. He and Peeler went into Peeler’s office and called Allen’s parents. They wept at the news.

“I know what he went through,” Peeler said. “I know how hard it was for him. I know how much his family sacrificed for him and I just wanted to be there when his family found out because I know how much they sacrificed financially, or just in general.”

It’s a story that’s as improbable as it is compelling. It’s affected people far and wide. A.J. Brown wrote a story on Allen’s path to Oxford for a class that appeared on OxfordStories (dot) net. It goes well beyond those who know Allen personally. When Ole Miss released the video of Allen being put on scholarship the message spread to thousands, including one of the more powerful men in American politics.

“This didn’t just involve adversity with football, it was life adversity,” United States Senator Marco Rubio said. “He had every reason to quit, not just on football but on everything. He could say ‘hey the world was stacked against me. I got hurt. I have no money. I can barely afford to feed myself. I am angry and I am going off in a different direction.’ This guy refused to quit.”

Rubio is a former college football player himself at Tarkio College for one year in Missouri. Rubio was a defensive back that longed to be a receiver. He’s an avid fan of the Florida Gators and keeps a close eye on the SEC. He saw Allen’s video and googled his backstory. He likely read Brown’s story on Allen as it was the only published story mentioning Allen’s past.

“We don’t have enough resiliency and perseverance in America today,” Rubio said. “Anytime I see examples like this, it is worthy. We need to catch people doing things right and this young man did something right. He is a great example, whether it is sports in life.”

The video made its way to El Camino, where Lindheim says Allen’s story is an example for his current players.

“Seeing that video was so inspiring to the guys on our team trying to do the same thing Floyd is doing,” Lindheim said.

Allen regularly gets messages on social media from younger athletes or players who’ve had obstacles knock them off of their path. He’s inspired people from coast-to-coast, whether it be his teammates, a US Senator or the next kid trying to make it out of the grind that is California’s junior college system. It’s all part of his calling, a piece of what he envisioned at his lowest moments in that Honda Civic or as he fell to the ground holding his ankle. The kid from North Houston was bold enough to dream big when there wasn’t a glimmer of hope.

“I have always felt my life’s purpose was to inspire people,” Allen said. “To have someone so high up be inspired by me it’s such a blessing. I’ve had a lot of kids DM me saying my story motivates them. That is pretty cool to me. I want people to see my story and see that I went through all of this and made it out. If he can do it, then I can do it.”